Practicing daily, cruciform, embodied love in our neighborhoods keeps us accountable to faithfully and quietly living out what we loudly preach on our platforms and in the spotlight of a world enamored with image crafting.
Even though Christian leaders denounce the celebrity culture of Evangelicalism, we love to opine and pontificate on most societal matters usually in order to feed our hungry followers. This has become the liturgy of contemporary Christian leadership culture.
However, if we are pronouncing, denouncing and culture shaping from our platforms, now more than ever, then we need to make sure that we are embodying what we are speaking out to our world. 1 John puts this starkly 3:18 “Dear children let us not love in word or speech but with actions and in truth.” Embodying our rhetoric is a demonstration of Christian love.
How Transformation Happens
For example, we Christians love our books, conferences and great sermons. However, these tools can trick us into thinking that by accessing more content, we can be transformed. How does authentic transformation happen? Not simply through attaining more knowledge. We can know perfectly well the complexities, intricacies and beauty of the gospel and yet fail to embody it.
Transformation and spiritual formation occur when, with the Spirit’s help, we attentively, painfully, persistently and humbly put into practice what we know to be true. We should be asking ourselves, “How do I faithfully make what I have proclaimed, heard and read an integrated part of my everyday life in my neighborhood so that I can reflect the image of God to my community?”
Often I’m told that what unites a particular local church is not place or neighborhood but a common theology. That’s good in one sense. But I think this points to the culture of disembodiment that the Church moves in today; abstract concepts take precedence over our lived-in environment. Our doctrine is put in the realm of the sacred, but our physical space is not, and as a result, we disconnect from much needed embodied engagement in our local neighborhoods.
As we live out the call to break bread with the poor, welcome the stranger and renounce the idols of certainty and comfort, we embody worship of our God. As this happens, our theology emerges, sometimes in spoken and written words, but always fleshed out in the local community we belong to. What we say about God must be interdependent with our actions.
I’m focusing especially on the local neighborhood because I think that this is where we are most authentically ourselves. Often we get caught up in causes, rallies and social media activism, which can be a helpful means for bringing change to our world. However, transformation happens as we engage with and bump into people in the places where we live. Then we are forced to reflect on what we must do as we encounter the other and as it personally impacts us. If I want to bring broader institutional change to our world, I must get to know my neighbor who might be a victim of injustices such as racism, sexism and economic unfairness.
Four Spiritual Disciplines for Loving Your Neighborhood
So what are some habits we can engage in to practice the spiritual discipline of loving our neighborhood?
The habits are very simple yet today they seem hard because we have become accustomed to distancing ourselves from our neighbors. The habits will seem slow, unfruitful and painful because success is gauged these days through immediate results. Alternatively, building relationships and trust in the neighborhood often takes a very long time.
This is a simple way of connecting with your neighborhood in a very grounded way in order to develop a love for the reality of the place rather than an idealization of your community. I’ve read a lot about prayer walking the neighborhood, but I think Deb Sternke, in her article One Simple Practice when evangelism completely freaks you out, gives a most helpful step-by-step guide if prayer walking is new to you.
In the book The Art of Neighboring: Building genuine relationships right outside your door, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon highlight that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor must be taken literally. They write “The problem is that we have turned this simple idea into a nice saying. We put it on bumper stickers and T-shirts and go on with our lives without actually putting it into practice. But the fact is, Jesus has given us a practical plan that has the potential to change the world.
To love our neighbors we must know them well enough to know their names. Learning someone’s name and remembering that name, is a sign of care. It is an act of humanizing someone in a world which can be incredibly dehumanizing.
Be a faithful presence
In James Davison Hunter’s classic book To Change the World, he writes that God has shown his faithful presence to us in that he pursues us, identifies with us and shows us his sacrificial love. As a result, we need to be faithful to each other in the same way. God shows us a “commitment that is active not passive, intentional not accidental, covenantal not contractual. God is with us wholeheartedly.” We are to be intentional in showing our love and “wholehearted” towards our neighbors in the community where we live. Just as Jesus is Emmanuel, “God is with us”, we too must display a “God is with us spirituality” towards our neighbors.
Engage with those different to you.
Hunter continues and says that God’s faithfulness to us means that we must be especially present towards those who are not the same as us. So we “welcome the stranger. The stranger represents neither metaphysical darkness or danger. When one’s life is hidden in Christ the existence of the other neither threatens or diminishes us.” This is a true challenge for us today as we see our world being torn apart by divisions based on fear of those who are different to us. It takes effort to move outside of our comfort zones and authentically reach out to those who have values, religions, habits and cultures that are not the same as ours.
Practicing the spiritual discipline of loving our neighborhood keeps us accountable to embodying what we proclaim through our words. The neighborhood is a place where cultures, divisions, tensions and hopes rub up against each other and rise to the surface to confront us. We are then faced with the challenge of reflecting on how to walk out our theology. I think this, more than anything, will be our apologetic and vehicle for our transformation today; embodying Christ-likeness through loving the people who live next door to us and on our streets.
“Whoever claims to abide in Him must walk as Jesus walked.” 1 John 2:6